Wednesday, 31 March 2010

BCA lawyers "want Simon Singh to pay for his supporters"

Tomorrow Simon Singh learns whether or not his appeal against Mr Justice Eady's idiosyncratic definition of the words "bogus" and "happily" has been successful. On the result probably hangs the future of his whole case - though if he loses, there may be a final (and perhaps lengthy) appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. If he wins, as most of us hope, he will still face the possibly challenging task of persuading Mr Justice Eady that he did not, after all, libel the British Chiropractic Association.

The Lord Chief Justice isn't the only one to find the whole saga baffling.

The most striking thing about Simon's libel defence, apart from the shocking fact that he ever had to mount it, is the tremendous interest that it has attracted from bloggers, Twitterers, Facebook groupies and other online folk. Scientists and free-speech advocates - the two groups who have done most to draw attention to the case and keep it in the headlines - are, of course, over-represented online, and without this grassroots activism it's unlikely that the wider campaign for libel reform would have achieved anything like the traction, mainstream media interest and ultimately political support that it has.

Simon Singh himself has often expressed his own appreciation for the contribution bloggers and other online activists have made to the reform campaign, as well as to his own morale as he continues the drawn-out, vastly expensive and stressful process.

But will there be a sting in the tail? In the new issue of Private Eye, Ratbiter reports that the BCA's solicitors Collyer Bristow intend to bill Simon Singh, should they ultimately prevail, for "the time they spent in 'discussions with bloggers' about the case." Noting the embarrassment caused by the likes of Simon Perry and Zeno (Alan Henness), who between them reported hundreds of chiropractors to trading standards officers or the ASA for continuing to make the very claims criticised in Singh's original article, Ratbiter comments:


Instead of blaming the BCA for the bad publicity its attempt to punish Singh has brought in the blogs, Collyer Bristow wants to charge Singh for handling inquiries from bloggers that would never have arisen if the chiropractors had not sued in the first place! No wonder the firm is so keen to strop Jack Straw curtailing the ability of English lawyers to fill their boots.

For the record, I've never troubled the fine folk at Collyer Bristow or taken up any of their (literally) precious time. Have many other bloggers?

Collyer Bristow - who also represent one-time Heresy Corner fixture Max Mosley - have been prominent in the rearguard action being fought to defend lawyers' lucrative conditional fee arrangements, recently helping to set up the pressure group Lawyers for Media Standards. The firm's head of media, Steven Heffer, put out a press release after the House of Lords approved Jack Straw's scheme to limit CFA payouts in which he claimed that the government "is being directed by the interests of the powerful media lobby in the run-up to the election." They'll have been pleased that the statutory instrument concerned was blocked in the Commons last night by a group of MPs led by a former minister, Tom Watson, who has had his own recourse to CFA-backed libel actions.

As a Times diarist noted in 2007, Collyer Bristow "has always been rather partial to act for the underdog."